So apparently someone uploaded Escape from Tomorrow (the surrealist horror film stealth-shot at Disney World) to YouTube and… that was… a film. That I just watched.
As someone who enjoys horror but is incredibly susceptible to jump scares—and thus tends to enjoy horror On Her Own Time rather than in, for example, a move theatre—I feel this review of the Hereditary Wikipedia page, which I too have read, really speaks to me, y’know?
For the record: yes, as a kid I both used to read all the back covers of horror VHS tapes and the blurbs of all the horror novels in the bookstore. Nowadays I just read the horror novels outright (assuming I can find any), and I’ve since watched most of the “VHS classics” on Netflix (on the whole, I’ve not found any particularly scary). And the main thing I’ve discovered? Well… the reality of the works is almost never as scary as I’d imagined from reading the summaries.
Nothing is so frightening as what’s behind the closed door […] You approach the door in the old, deserted house, and you hear something scratching at it. The audience holds its breath along with the protagonist as she/he (more often she) approaches that door. The protagonist throws it open, and there is a ten-foot-tall bug. The audience screams, but this particular scream has an oddly relieved sound to it. “A bug ten feet tall is pretty horrible,” the audience thinks, “but I can deal with a ten-foot-tall bug. I was afraid it might be a hundred feet tall.” […]
What’s behind the door or lurking at the top of the stairs is never as frightening as the door or the staircase itself. And because of this, come the paradox: the artistic work of horror is almost always a disappointment. It is the classic no-win situation. You can scare people with the unknown for a long, long time [but sooner or later] you have to open the door and show the audience what’s behind it. And if what happens to be behind it is a bug, not ten but a hundred feet tall, the audience heaves a sigh of relief (or utters a scream of relief) and thinks, “A bug a hundred feet tall is pretty horrible, but I can deal with that. I was afraid it might be a thousand feet tall.”
Incidentally, that quote is from an essay in Danse Macabre, published in 1981, and The Thing That Happened between now and 1981… well, there’ve been a few. But one of the big ones, particularly where horror is concerned, was the influence of Asian horror in the early ’00s. Things like The Ring and The Grudge and what have you. And the thing I think that kind of horror does extremely well—and the thing it brought in to Western horror cinema—was understatement. Think about something like A Tale of Two Sisters, which has both almost no conventional (Western) “bug reveals” and yet I found almost unwatchably oppressive and tense. Modern Western horror films, like It Follows or The Babadook or The Ritual, are the direct descendants of that influence.1 Compare and contrast, for example, The Void, a film made in a more “oldskool” style, which I enjoyed for the body horror (i.e. bug reveals) but found kinda meh, atmosphere-wise (at least it wasn’t a thousand foot bug!). Or even the TV show of The Exorcist, which has some great set-pieces—both of the grotesque and of the tense varieties—but that I never really felt hung together in any cohesive way.2
Tl;dr, horror is hard. And nothing you ever put on screen will ever be as terrifying as what a reader imagines from reading the film’s summary on Wikipedia. Go figure, I guess.
- For the record: I enjoyed-and-found scary The Babadook, was kinda meh on The Ritual, and actively dislike It Follows. Other entries on this list would be things like The Witch (meh) and Get Out (still on the to-be-watched pile). [↩]
- Particularly its demons. Its demons were all over the place, mostly because I think the show wanted too much have-its-cake-and-eat-it-too in the sense of having both “demons are incomprehensible grotesque corrupting horrors” and “demons are basically snobby rich people who enjoy participating in vaguely antisemitic-smelling conspiracy plots”. Which… fine. Except it was often the same demon acting in both roles, which… why would it do that? Why would arrogant an fallen angel who considers humans beneath it also spend time scrabbling through the mud eating raw seagulls? A little consistency, please! [↩]
Interesting look at the rise and the fall of the movie star.
Like most Millennials I don’t really “get” the idea of movie stars; I’ll certainly not go see a film if it has actors in it I find reprehensible, but I don’t go to see films just because they have someone in them that I’ve liked in something else. This wasn’t always true—I went through a huge Robin Williams phase as a kid, for example—but it is now, and it’d never really occurred to me that the main difference between now and then is that nowadays the internet exists to give me an indication of whether I will like something or not. But back in Ye Oldene Dayes, actors were the main signifier (“I liked X in Y so I’ll probably also like them in Z”). Which is how you get an eleven-year-old watching Caddyshack because she liked Ghostbusters, I guess…
How superhero films inherited all the same damn problems as superhero comics.
Also shout-out to Film Crit Hulk for apparently having discovered how to turn the capslock key off on his keyboard.
Also also the whole thing about “dazzle everyone with constantly escalating conflict with no stakes and no payoff” reminds me a lot of, well. This.
Rachel Manija Brown on story without conflict.
I’m always really (a-har) conflicted by these sorts of posts, because on the one hand I agree—I love quiet scenes and cutrainfic and so on—but, on the other, I think in some respects they sell the notion of “conflict” itself short. Yes, there is an over-emphasis on superficial external conflict (e.g. violence, arguments) in a lot of media nowadays, see pretty much every action movie, for example. But, also, I think it’s possible for subtler forms of conflict to exist within a narrative, including metatextual conflict between the narrative and itself, the narrative and other works, or the narrative and the reader.
Brown mentions the “secret garden” genre, for example, as one that tends to be without conflict. But I’d argue that the attraction of the secret garden is, in fact, rooted in a metatextual conflict in this latter sense. That is, it’s the conflict between the reader’s unfulfilled desire for their own secret garden and the fact that the protagonist has one that the reader, by the very action of reading, intrudes upon and eventually takes over (by subsuming the book, and thus the garden, into their own memories).
Curtainfic, meanwhile, is a work that’s almost always in conflict with its own source material. A solid third of all fics tagged curtainfic on the AO3, for example, are in the Supernatural fandom, with the next biggest chunk coming from the MCU. These are not canons known for their fluffy domesticity! As someone who loves a curtainfic, and particularly loves its Villains Out Shopping subtrope, I can assert the fun in both reading and writing these scenarios is definitely in exploring the conflict their quiet mundanity presents against either the canon or the characters. (See also: why villain/antihero/antagonist fandoms tend to be full of “fluffy” memes.)
For another, related, example, see any time anyone trots out kishōtenketsu as a “story without conflict” trope… and then proceed to give a handful of examples all of which include some kind of conflict. The fact that the conflict is usually framed as the story presenting contrasting narrative elements, with the conflict between them occurring within the reader’s head as a kind of dialectic—as opposed to direct “on the page” action—does not, in fact, actually mean the narrative is “without conflict”. But, like. Good luck getting anyone to admit that.
“But, Alis!” you might be thinking. “What you’re describing is contrast, not ‘conflict’. You’ve even used the word multiple times!”
Yeah. And what I’d argue is that, in almost all circumstances, when people talk about “conflict” in the context of narrative what they actually mean to talk about is contrast (a.k.a. tension). Two random characters having a fight is conflict, but it isn’t narratively interesting unless you’re one of those people who nuts to mechanized descriptions of fight scenes.1 Two characters having a fight over differing ideologies, on the other hand, is interesting, particularly when each side has some valid points and the audience themselves is engaged with attempting to determine who to root for and why. This is also why so many “popcorn villains” are so flat and kinda bullshit.
Think about, say, Strickland in Shape of Water, for example, who is pretty much the epitome of an uncompelling antagonist. This isn’t the fault of Michael Shannon, who does great; it’s because in the context of the narrative Strickland is just a one-note bad guy. He’s a bigot who hates the fish man! Okay, well… good on him, I guess. But the reality is Strickland could be replaced by literally anything else—including nothing at all—and the film’s conflict would remain the same. Why? Because the conflict in the film isn’t “oh no gubba gonna getcha fish, gurl”. It’s “ahaha in every other story like this the fish guy is either evil, or dies, or turns human at the end”. It’s a metatextual conflict, in other words, between the audience and their expectations for the genre. This is also, incidentally, why I thought the film was kinda meh; because I read a lot of monster romance, I have no genre expectation of the narrative going in any way other than “girl fucks fish man”. Because that’s how monster romances work!2 Which means the actual narrative itself felt empty in the “superficial conflict no contrast/tension” way.3 Also, the romance was really flat. Like, really flat.
I did look pretty, though. So… there’s that I guess.4 Also, it won a bunch of Oscars, which just goes to show why narrative conflict is such a minefield, since it leans so heavily on being able to anticipate the mental/emotional states of your audience…
- No judgement, you do you. [↩]
- Except when they’re, like, “boy fucks fish man”, or “girl fucks eldritch horror”, or “enby shares non-sexual intimacy with demon”, or whatever. [↩]
- Also see: the Obvious Hints that Sally is also, in fact, a fish monster. Meaning the story isn’t even “girl fucks fish man”, it’s “fish woman fucks fish man” which… eeeeeh. [↩]
- Though don’t get me started on the whole “sassy Black best friend with deadbeat husband” and “tragic queer uncle” tropes because, ugh. What is it about del Toro films and throwing intersectionality under the goddamn bus? [↩]
Cthulhu, 2007. [Content warning for one female-on-male rape scene.]
Hey you. Yes, you. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Man. I really need more modern queer adaptations of H. P. Lovecraft’s seminal work The Shadow Over Innsmouth in my life!”
Well, my friend! Do I have a film for you! All of it, in fact, uploaded by the director to YouTube so you can watch the whole thing for free!
I found out about this film care of hbomberguy’s (you know, he’s the “Sherlock Sucks and Here’s Why” dude) video essay on how to adapt H.P. Lovecraft for modern audiences. That essay is also 100% worth watching, possibly before seeing Cthulhu itself, because it sets up expectations for the film (short version: it’s not a big loud gory horror, or a perfect film, and if you go in expecting either you’ll hate it).
hbomberguy’s essay tries to explore the question of just why so many people from marginalized identities seem to be fans of Lovecraft’s work, particularly when the man himself was such a viciously bigoted dipshit. As both a) a huge Lovecraft/mythos fan, and b) a queer woman and a member of an ethnic group Lovecraft… wasn’t particularly into (i.e. the slavs), the essay really resonated with me. Hence wanting to check out the film that inspired it. As it turned out, I… ended up really enjoying Cthulhu. It’s by no means a perfect film, but it’s a queer Lovecraftian psychological horror/mystery which is, like, 100% My Bag Baby. I know that it’s also 100% the bags of a bunch of you people (I see you, friends), hence… if you haven’t seen this film, definitely put aside two and a half hours (for the film and the essay) to check it out.
I’m wary of all conclusions drawn about media in the scarcity age, including the idea that people went to see movies because of movie stars. It’s not that Will Smith isn’t charismatic. He is. But I suspect Will Smith was in a lot of hits in the age of scarcity in large part because there weren’t a lot of other entertainment options vying for people’s attention when Independence Day or something of its ilk came out, like clockwork, to launch the summer blockbuster season.
The same goes for the general idea that any one star was ever the chief engine for a film’s box office. If the idea that people go see a movie just to see any one star was never actually true, we can stop holding the modern generation of movie stars to an impossible standard.
Eugene Wei on scarcity.
While there are certainly actors I like—and I’ve certainly not seem films because they feature an actor I don’t like—I don’t think I’ve ever actually watched a film specifically because of who was in it…1
- Directors, yes… but even still, that’s pretty rare. [↩]